This article has been updated.

The City of San Antonio’s policy of releasing migrants from its resource center after three days has prompted some migrants, including families with children, to sleep on the streets.

In a vacant lot across from the migrant resource center on San Pedro, old carpets laid out on the concrete served as bedding. A hole in the fence allows entry to migrants, who sleep there. One family set up a tent for shelter.

Many of the migrants interviewed in the vacant lot last week indicated that they would be staying in San Antonio rather than moving to their original destination. Alexander Perez said he’d been sleeping in the lot for the past two weeks, working day labor jobs to save money for rent to stay.

“I want to stay in San Antonio because I haven’t seen racism here. There’s a lot of good people here, there’s plenty of jobs,” said the Venezuelan immigrant last week. 

On Friday afternoon, city officials visited the vacant lot after a reporter told them about migrants sleeping there, including families with small children. They learned that earlier in the afternoon, police had swept the lot, said Rob Gonzalez, a member of Iglesia Pentecostal Impacto de Amor, a local Spanish-language church. He told city officials that his church had taken in the families who had been sleeping there.

Jessica Dovalina, assistant director of the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS), who visited the vacant lot Friday afternoon, said she had been unaware that some migrants who had left the center were sleeping outside.

Short-term assistance

Dovalina emphasized that the city’s purpose in opening the central hub has been to temporarily assist migrants on their way to their host cities. She said she hadn’t heard that some migrants appear to be changing their travel plans to stay in San Antonio.

The vast majority of migrants passing through San Antonio are headed to other U.S. cities, city officials say. Those who don’t have immediate travel plans can work with center employees known as “navigators,” according to the city, who help connect them to resources like Catholic Charities, which provides immigrants support through a variety of programs.

“It’s up to the migrant to seek help if they need it,” said Tara Ford, director of marketing and communications for Catholic Charities. She added that anyone seeking assistance will receive it.

No migrants, especially those with small children, have been turned out by the center without being given resources to find shelter, Dovalina said, noting that families can ask to stay for additional days.

Sebastián Hidalgo, 3 holds a ball near bags of trash at a makeshift outdoor migrant shelter in the Shearer Hills/ Ridgeview area Thursday. Hidalgo immigrated with his mother from Venezuela.
Sebastián Hidalgo, 3 years old, holds a ball near bags of trash at a makeshift outdoor migrant shelter in the Shearer Hills-Ridgeview area Thursday. Hidalgo and his mother Yojaina Cortes immigrated from Venezuela. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Yojaina Cortes, a Venezuelan migrant who arrived in San Antonio with her 3-year-old son, said Thursday that she asked an official at the center if she could stay one more day until her husband, who was still in processing, arrived at the center.  

“[The center employee] told me no, I had to find a way and that she was going to rip my wristband. I asked her what to do,” said Cortes, who was sitting in the vacant lot while her son played with other children there. She said the employee gave her an address for help, but she chose to stay close to the center to wait for her husband.

Abraham Araque, another Venezuelan migrant — the city has said about 90% of current migrants are from Venezuela — arrived with his wife, 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. During their time at the center, the family scratched their original plan to settle in New York and instead decided to settle in San Antonio because of job opportunities in the area.

Families sleeping outside

“We’re going to sleep over there,” said Araque on Thursday, as he pointed to the vacant lot nearby. “Until we make some money to rent.” 

On Tuesday, Araque told the San Antonio Report that he found trying to stay in San Antonio “too complicated.” After getting paid for some work, Araque was able to buy plane tickets to New York.

It is unclear what happened to Cortes and her son. City officials said late Wednesday it had no record of anyone registered by that name at the center. Carlos Garcia, pastor of Iglesia Pentecostal Impacto de Amor, said she was not among the families taken in Friday. Two families are staying with church members, he said; one has since been connected to Catholic Charities.

Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said Tuesday the city has only asked 81 migrants out of 22,000 who have been served to leave, either for behavioral issues, or because their three days were up. City officials said all 81 were “unaccompanied males.”

“There may be people who just leave on their own, but we only asked 81 to exit,” she said. 

Asked about a family of five picked up from the vacant lot by church members, a city spokeswoman said the family left after three days “on their own” and “were not forced to leave.”

A migrant woman holds up a dress from a pile of clothes donated by the members of Iglesia Pentecostal Impacto de Amor at a makeshift outdoor shelter in the Shearer Hills/ Ridgeview area Thursday.
A migrant woman holds up a dress from a pile of clothes donated by the members of Iglesia Pentecostal Impacto de Amor at a makeshift outdoor shelter in the Shearer Hills-Ridgeview area Thursday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The spokeswoman confirmed that migrants arriving at the center are told that they may stay for three days, and that migrants “may or may not” alert staff when they leave.

Some migrants interviewed outside the resource center over the past several weeks have said that they were asked to leave after three days, while others said they left after three days because they were told that was the rule.

According to Houston, between 500 to 1,000 migrants arrive at the center a day, and roughly 70% leave within 24 hours because they already have travel plans. The remaining third are often trying to obtain the money to purchase tickets, the city said.

Many do that by working, even though they may not do so legally. They find jobs outside the center, as cars and trucks line up daily seeking workers. Perez, for example, has worked construction, carpentry and gardening jobs.

Perez said he’s now earned enough money to stay in a hotel near the center, so he can keep getting day work. He said even after Friday’s sweep by police, migrants are still sleeping in the lot. They just want to work for a better life, he said.

“When we come for refuge, they don’t allow us to work,” he said. “We come to work, we don’t come to ask or beg. There are many opportunities here.”

This story has been updated to reflect additional information from the City of San Antonio.

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.